Illegal aliens will continue to be a problem for the United States, even if Congress passes a very tough immigration-reform bill this year, says the chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. The chairman, Rep. Bill Richardson (D) of New Mexico, says reform bills being debated on Capitol Hill would still leave several million illegal aliens living ``in the shadows'' of America.
Just passing a new law will not be enough to force them out of the country, Representative Richardson says. Nor will the US have enough manpower to find and deport them.
Even so, Mr. Richardson says he favors a comprehensive bill he hopes will discourage millions of others from slipping into the country and taking jobs from US citizens.
The chairman, interviewed by the Monitor, said Hispanic leaders are split on immigration reform. He is concerned that some Hispanic lobbyists in Washington who oppose reform claim to know how Hispanics feel but ``are not reflecting it.''
In fact, Richardson says, Hispanic-Americans in his state are very concerned about illegal immigration and want to see it stopped. ``They are worried about jobs,'' he says. ``We have a lot of illegal aliens coming in and mostly working in the roofing business and in agricultural areas. The general view is, `We've got to act.' ''
The immigration-reform bills now being debated in Congress would bolster the US Border Patrol, make it illegal for US companies to hire undocumented aliens, and give amnesty to some -- but not all -- of the illegal aliens now here.
Hispanics in his home state of New Mexico favor that overall approach to immigration reform, Richardson says.
The present Senate bill would grant amnesty to illegal aliens who came to the US prior to Jan. 1, 1980. The House bill would allow those to stay who arrived prior to Jan. 1, 1982.
The major difference between Hispanic and non-Hispanic views on this issue in New Mexico, Richardson suggests, is that most non-Hispanics probably oppose amnesty for illegals now here. Most Hispanic-Americans in New Mexico appear to favor amnesty, he says. New Mexico has the highest percentage of Hispanic-Americans (about 35 percent) in the country.
Hispanics also are concerned that fining employers who hire illegals (as proposed by current bills) would make it harder for Hispanic-Americans who ``look foreign'' to get jobs.
Richardson worries that unless there is action for reform, preferably ``this calendar year,'' pressure could grow for even tougher measures that could have ``a lot of discriminatory aspects.''
The greatest obstacle to quick passage is the growing controversy over a side issue -- a proposed ``guest worker'' program that would bring 350,000 Mexicans a year into the US to harvest perishable farm produce in the West, primarily in California.
At present, illegal alien workers harvest more than 50 percent of the perishable crops in the West, according to US farm labor specialists. (Some Hispanic groups such as the National Council of La Raza say the level is actually much lower than that.) Growers insist that if the US suddenly gets tough on immigration, there won't be enough workers, and crops could rot in the fields.
Western growers ``are greedy,'' Richardson charges. ``They want it all; and that has the potential to blow the whole [reform] bill apart.''
Richardson argues that a guest-worker program will be nothing more than a warmed-over version of the old, discredited ``bracero'' program of the 1950s. That could open the way to exploitation of Mexican workers, and reduce the chances for US workers in agriculture to get higher wages.
``We have to avoid that, in my judgment,'' the congressman says.
Richardson has his own wrinkle on the illegal immigration debate. It's called the Mexican-US Border Revitalization Act of 1985.
His bill seeks to create a 200-mile-wide, duty-free zone on each side of the Mexican-US border. Any product grown or manufactured there could move duty free. There would be, in addition, co-production zones and agreements with US and Mexican ownership.
The purpose would be to create a thriving industrial area where economic opportunity for Mexican and US workers would be enhanced. Rising economic expectations within Mexico would decrease the pressures for young, aspiring Mexicans to flee their country.
In the past, Mexico has failed to respond to such suggestions. This year, however, Richardson says he has heard from the Mexican government that they are ``studying'' the proposal. This is ``a gigantic step,'' Richardson says.
``It won't work if the Mexicans dismiss it or disregard it, and I'm hopeful that they will see for the first time that it is in their interests also to deal cooperatively with us.
``They have avoided dealing with us on this issue in the past. It hasn't been a bilateral agenda matter. . . .
``I predict that if . . . an immigration bill that discriminates against many of [Mexico's] people is enacted, there will be repercussions. . . .
``But they are to blame, too. They have made no initiative to work with us. And we have put forth a positive initiative in this area, and if they respond negatively, or dismiss it, then they have no one but themselves to blame.''
Why has Mexico been so passive?
``It's very simple,'' Richardson says. ``Illegal immigration is not their problem. It's become our problem. And they see it as a safety valve for their unemployment problems.''
It is also hurting Mexico, however.
``It's a brain drain, and it also a human drain. And they are losing, and they are doing nothing to correct it.''
Despite the obstacles, Richardson predicts a bill of some sort will pass soon. Probably in 1986.